Stopping to move a wandering worm off the sidewalk. Helping a baby bird that fell out of it’s nest. Not walking by with indifference. This sort of extreme compassion is a thing that some of us – with our busy, distracted lives – strive for imperfectly. But there are others – startlingly kind souls – who live and breathe extreme compassion.
Last week I went to the tailor – a big deal for me since I know how to sew. But I have a dress – a dress with lace, three layers, and a hidden zipper. I love this dress but it needs to be 2 sizes smaller. This project is totally out of my league.
Wendy’s tiny, crowded shop is located in a remote basement shop of an art deco building in downtown Tulsa. Little Ava and I circled the whole property 5 times before we phoned Wendy, defeated. Two minutes later she appeared: a bespectacled Vietnamese woman in cherry lipstick. As she led us down to the basement she crooned “So pretty” in a thick accent every time she looked at my daughter.
Wendy’s shop was more closet than office. Clothes hung around us thickly, torn slips of paper pinned to each shoulder, indicating the owner’s name and number. She was efficient, though, clucking as she tucked my dress in a few spots and pinned it. It’d be ready in a week, she asserted.
Hope in all creatures
That’s when I heard the cheeping. I looked through a doorway, towards the back of her shop. A robin was perched on the back of a sewing chair. Ava grinned and I chuckled.
“You want to see another?” Wendy asked.
Ava and I nodded hastily in agreement.
As she shuffled to the back of her shop she continued: “I see them. I stop, sew them when I can.”
She reappeared with a basket covered with another, smaller basket. She lifted this last to reveal a raggety white bird – perhaps a dove – with dozens of red threads sticking up from the top of its head. It let out several frail, excitable chirps.
“This bird – I find on road. A car hit – was bleeding, everywhere blood. The head was open. I could see the brains. Both wings broken. I take it, I see it still move. I sew it. Sew the brains in. Sew the wings, then bind so they can heal.”
“How long has it been since you found him?” I asked, wondering if it could possibly survive.
She picked the bird up tenderly. It flapped its wings perfectly, revealing the red stitches that had made such movement possible. “Three weeks. Doing much better now. Will be okay.”
I ask her how she knows how to do this (and by “this” I mean bird brain surgery). She tells me she learned in her village back in Vietnam, at her father’s side. She’s stitched up many birds like this. She always stops – she sees hope in all creatures.
Ooof. Talk about extreme compassion!
I took a couple of pictures because I thought – surely – no one would believe me if I didn’t have photographic evidence of Wendy’s handiwork (a closeup of the bird can be found on my Instagram @GlobalTable). Long after I left the shop I thought about her gracious good deeds. I found them at once tender and almost reckless. She had no fear of disease, of getting her hands dirty, of making the situation worse than better. She only cared about helping those birds get better.
A Spicy Vietnamese Slaw
Today, in honor of Wendy’s extreme compassion, I offer up this Spicy Vietnamese slaw – but without the sliced chicken that is so commonly served on top. Little Ava will also be pleased because – some time ago – she asked me “Mama, is chicken chicken?” and when the answer came back yes, she put down her fork and hasn’t touched it since. Who knows what she’ll chose in the future, but right now we’re mostly a chicken-free household.
The salad is a simple affair, really – commonly served on the side of many Vietnamese meals: cabbage and carrots tossed with fresh herbs, crushed peanuts, and a Nước mắm pha-style dressing. It’s at once spicy and fresh. Bold, yet healthy.
Don’t be shy with the herbs – the more the better. They’ll carry you through summer with a smile.
The lesson in all this? Next time you think about passing through life indifferent, reconsider.
For the dressing:
1-5 Thai bird chilies (5 is super hot!)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons sugar
3 tablespoons fish sauce
6 tablespoons rice vinegar, or lime juice, or half of each
For the salad:
1 small green cabbage, quartered, cored, and shredded
1/2 pound of shredded carrots
1 bunch mint leaves, chopped
1/2 bunch cilantro or rau răm, chopped
1/2 bunch basil or Thai basil, chopped
salt – up to 2 teaspoons to make the flavors pop
6 ounces peanuts, lightly cracked
First, prepare the dressing. I like to use a mortar and pestle to grind the peppers and garlic with the sugar. Then I add the remaining ingredients and adjust the flavors to taste. Alternatively, you could just slice the peppers in tiny rings and crush the garlic.
TIP: Five chili peppers makes a really spicy salad even though it mellows a touch after an hour or so. For mild, use just one.
Next, slice up the cabbage and carrots and toss in the largest bowl you have, along with all the herbs you can manage. I used a full bunch of mint and bit less of the rest… and still think it could have taken more. Add as much dressing as you’d like along with 1-2 teaspoons of salt.
TIP: Instead of slicing the herbs, tear them. This bruises the leaves, giving more flavor to the salad. It also makes for larger pieces which gives a nice, salady mouthfeel. The salad will keep in good shape for about an hour (The next day leftovers will be soft, but fine enough for a quick, easy lunch. The heat will have mellowed somewhat, too).
Toss with lightly crushed peanuts right before serving. Aside from lovely crunch, they also give the salad a bit of much needed richness (since the dressing has no fat).
Enjoy with chopsticks, a tall glass of water, and extreme compassion in your heart…
…perhaps with a portrait of beautiful Vietnam in your mind’s eye…
What examples of extreme compassion have you experienced or witnessed in your life? I’d love to hear your stories… after all, compassion is contagious!